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Tortoise

(4 Oct 2009: Reckless Records (Wicker Park) — Chicago)

Five years have passed since Chicago-based post-rockers Tortoise released new material. This summer the band triumphantly unleashed Beacons of Ancestorship, their sixth full-length album to date. In honor of the new release, Tortoise has hit the road, performing new material off their latest album.


On Sunday, October 4th, Tortoise made a rare, in-store appearance at Chicago’s Reckless Records in Wicker Park. The band’s spread of instruments was set up on the south end of the store, framed by rock t-shirts, staff picks, new releases and trade in counter. Fans gathered between racks of vinyl records, and rested against shelves of CDs in hopes of catching a glimpse of the band. The space was narrow and there was not much room for movement, but people made due.


The set was scheduled to start promptly at 5 p.m., and spectators patiently awaited the start. There was little to no conversation amongst fans, giving the space a stiff and meek feeling. At about 4:30 p.m. members John McEntire and Jeff Parker took “stage” to tune and finish setting up. The audience got even quieter for the three or so minutes of tuning, keeping a close eye on the process, witnessing a tom crash here and a keyboard wail there. Once finished tinkering with cables and chords, McEntire and Parker disappeared to the back of the store, and the hushed waiting continued. 


Once 5 p.m. struck, the show began as promised. McEntire and Parker filed out, in the company of Dan Bitney, John Herndon and Doug McCombs, to an instant outburst of applause and cheers. The first chords were struck without any introductions from the band. As usual, Tortoise’s power was with the rhythm section, controlling the music with a deep, heavy drive. McCombs’ bass lines were so lush and dynamic that one could feel the ground rumble. McEntire discretely lead the tune on synthesizer as the rest of the band seemed to follow cue.


As the performance progressed the music grew increasingly complicated and involved. Little to nothing was said in between songs by the band, and the audience’s silence was more intense than ever. In between each number band members rotated instruments, presenting a fresh sonic perspective.  By the fourth song the music and feel got funkier, intertwining both rock and jazz grooves similar to the styles of 1960s Miles Davis. The guitar and synthesizers acted as horn sections, and were complimented by the drive of both bass and drums. Before long, Parker’s guitar strayed, demonstrating a command for distortion, pedal manipulation and long notes. The melody took a few twists and turns before dropping to a quiet volume as Parker continued to work his guitar magic, slowly fading out the distortion. Each part came back together with an improvised bang, bringing the song to an end. 


As a whole, the performance demonstrated a cacophony of notes, minor chords, a variety of time signatures and eccentric, robotic melodies. There was a stylistic detour in about every number, ranging from: jazz fusion, acid jazz, progressive rock, ambient noise and more. Each song was multi-layered and ensemble minded, featuring group play and embedded solos from each member in every piece. The music commonly worked scales, building and descending as the notes progressed, providing the music with a vertical tone. McCombs rode each bass line with precision and groove, while Herndon shined on drums, upholding a steady drive. Bitney and McEntire spread themselves around the music, both taking off at full force while playing keyboards and synthesizers. The audience took everything in; while few rocked out in an upward position, others gazed with complete seriousness and stiffness as the music unfolded before their senses.


Tortoise ended their set with a thick, heavy, fast driving bang. They demonstrated their command and skill with an improvised free jam, which received the loudest and most enthusiastic crowd response of the evening. The musical experience lasted approximately 47 minutes, and broke up fairly quickly as fans rushed to racks in hopes of finding Tortoise and other Thrill Jockey albums for autographs.

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